Dr Nick Teanby

"The discoveries are not always immediate in science. Sometimes you just have to go with the exploration and see where it takes you. If we could predict everything beforehand it would be a lot less fun."

Dr Nick Teanby joined Bristol University as a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Advanced Research Fellow in 2010, investigating how geophysical techniques can be used to solve planetary science problems.

His current research is concerned with the atmosphere of Saturn's giant moon Titan, using infra-red remote sensing data measured by the Cassini spacecraft, combined with radiative transfer techniques to map out the distribution of unstable organic species.

His studies also investigate the atmospheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and Mars. Most recently he has begun applying seismological techniques to study Mars’ interior and surface.

"I remember watching the television footage of the Voyager Neptune fly-by in the late 1980s and being amazed by the images it retuned. This was the first time we’d ever even seen what this planet looked like. It inspired me to get a small telescope and start learning more about the science.

When I was a kid I also really enjoyed taking apart radios, TVs, or any broken stuff I could find; I was fascinated with finding out how things worked, and how the universe works - something that I’m very lucky to have carried on into my career.

At school we had a whole range of enthusiastic science teachers, from the organised to the more haphazard. Science was always the most interesting subject for me – especially when an ancient box of ‘radioactive stuff’ or some crazy chemicals from the supply room made an appearance.

I remember one lesson on alkali metals where the entire school supply of potassium got put into a trough of water by mistake – of course it exploded everywhere and shattered the water trough!

At A-level I went on to do physics, chemistry and maths and found it all really interesting, especially physics. So, I was extremely pleased to get accepted into Cambridge University – I think I was the first person in 15 years to get into Cambridge from my comprehensive in Doncaster.

Going to university wasn’t what everyone did in those days, so it was quite a big deal to me.

Towards the end of university I got interested in geophysics, despite or possibly because of a freezing cold week doing fieldwork on the fens, so I decided to concentrate on that for a PhD. I secured a place at Leeds University to look at the Earth’s magnetic field, which was a great experience.

I went to Hawaii to collect samples and then to France to do some 7-day-a-week lab measurements. Seeing the lava flows on Kilauea was a real highlight and I’ve since managed to go back and use the large telescopes on Mauna Kea.

I went on to do seismology as a post-doc. We went to the Seychelles and Ethiopia, and on the Seychelles we almost couldn’t find one of the instruments as it was hidden in the jungle, but after four hours of combing a tiny island we managed to find it buried under some leaves. I also remember trying to stop a giant tortoise mating with one of our instruments!

My research has gone full circle and returned to planetary science. I’m currently studying a moon of Saturn called Titan, trying to figure out the chemicals in the atmosphere. I’m using data from the Cassini mission that launched in 1997 and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, making detailed measurements of Saturn, its 50+ moons, and rings.

Cassini is a $3bn NASA mission with about ten science instruments, each with a team of around 50 people looking at the data. I’m on the infrared spectrometer team, looking at gases in the atmosphere and creating maps to figure out what it all means in terms of the chemical composition and atmosphere of Titan.

Discovering new things and chatting to people about results has to be the best thing about the job – it’s pretty cool to think you can go to a meeting somewhere halfway around the world and talk about an obscure moon called Titan and that there will be lots of people who are looking at the same thing.

The reason we are so interested in Titan is because it could be a good analogue for the primordial Earth – it’s the only other solar system object with a predominantly nitrogen atmosphere. A lot about it is not really understood and there’s so much to explore.

That’s what appeals to me about planetary science – we know a lot about the Earth whereas with the other planets, there’s a lot less known and each new data point really counts.

In science there’s a lot banging your head against a brick wall while you try to figure something out but when you do discover something, that’s really cool and in all honesty, that’s what keeps me motivated.

Problems can happen – things go off course, instruments break, but you just have to figure out how to carry on despite all that. It’s all part of the challenge.

It’s taken over my life really, but hopefully in a good way. As a scientist, you’re always thinking about the next thing, you don’t do 9-to-5 and leave your work behind when you go home. It’s almost a 24hr occupation.

Holidays are a good time to reflect because you can get so bogged down in the detail that when you’re away from things, you might think of something really interesting and important.

With all that’s going on in science, it’s difficult to organise your thoughts sometimes but it’s good to at least try to document things. I tend to note things in a notebook or on my computer.

There is pressure to publish papers on the important results and there is a race to be the first. This is especially true for space missions like Cassini as the data is made publicly available after a year and is not just confined to the instrument teams.

Arguments can break out between scientists with different interpretations of the same data, but that’s all part of the process and helps us figure out what’s really going on.

What impact is my work on Titan going to have on the world, the economy, and society? It’s not an easy question to answer as the long-term benefits are hard to predict and as scientists we don’t often spend a long time thinking about such questions.

We’re motivated more by discovery and an interest in the science itself. However, I understand that it is very important because funders, governments, the public need to know what they are paying for and what use it will be.

One of the greatest things about planetary science is that it inspires people to go on and study science, which is essential for a strong economy and a skilled workforce. For Titan, the hope is that the lessons we learn about its atmosphere may feedback into our understanding of atmospheres in general and help tackle climate change.

The technology developed for space missions also has benefits for society. One of the first solid state memory devices was developed for Cassini to store its data, a technology that we now use every day in mobile phones and memory sticks.

The discoveries are not always immediate in their benefits to society. For example, Darwin spent 20 years writing his Origin of the Species and the implications for genetics are still being figured out today.

Sometimes you just have to go with the exploration and see where it takes you. If we could predict everything beforehand there wouldn’t be much point and it would be a lot less fun.”

Nick Teanby
Dr Nick Teanby, STFC Advanced Fellow, School of Earth Sciences

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Watch Nick discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Can science save us?

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